Friday, January 15, 2010

100% Made in Italy

WWPD readers have come to expect reports here every time some much-cherished American image of Western Europe (that its women are uniformly thin and chic*; that everyone shops at farmers' markets) receives some critical, contrarian attention. So, for you, a Freakonomics blog post about the less-than-picturesque reality behind Italian agriculture:

Lost in the condemnation of Italian xenophobia, however, is a less obvious but equally important discovery: Italy’s bucolic countryside — the heart of its pristine agrarian image — is sustained by foreign migrants living in, as one official put it, “subhuman conditions.” Those imported canned tomatoes that go into your classic tomato sauce obscure a world of hurt.

This is not what I want to hear when contemplating the land of slow food, ancient farm houses, rolling vineyards, and leisurely lunches over pasta, bruschetta, mozzarella, and fine wine. It’s not what I want to hear when savoring the near-spiritual identification between Italians and their legendary pastoral landscape, blessed with its inimitable air, soil, and produce.
It seems that two separate issues are at stake. One, there's the question of "subhuman conditions," and of the diminished appeal of food known to have been produced unethically. But it would be inaccurate to say that the American (and perhaps international) fantasy regarding Italian food, as (I think accurately) described in this post, is limited to a belief that Italians pay their workers a living wage. Part of the disillusionment here is, it seems, coming from the fact that the workers behind Italian food are not themselves ethnic Italians, whose families have been in that village since ancient times. Those who dream of Real Italy often want their Italian food made by Real Italians, according to the secret methods passed down from generation to generation. One finds the same issue with discussions of consumption generally - are those who instinctively gravitate to Made in Italy over Made in China reacting to the labor conditions in the two countries, the presumed quality of the goods, the mental image of like-it's-always-been-done craftsmanship, an outright (if undisclosed) irrational preference for Italians rather than Chinese people to make one's stuff, or some combination? Racism, then, or perhaps more precisely xenophobia, is operating on different levels. Americans associate ethnic-Western-European workers with good labor conditions, but it seems the fantasy has a less noble component as well, in at least some instances.

(Before anyone gets excited and starts a boycott of Italian canned tomatoes, remember that cans in an Italian-looking package could well be a domestic product. They might be produced unethically here in the US, and the can lining might give you hermaphrodite children, but African migrant workers in Italy were not harmed.)

5 comments:

PG said...

I don't know about Italy, but I have increasingly been skeptical of certain goods Made in China, especially if the company's reputation was largely built in the days of making the goods in the U.S. There really does seem to be a difference in quality of things like kitchenware (e.g. metal baking dishes) between goods made in China and those that were made in the U.S. My mom was really irked in trying to outfit my kitchen by the dearth of cooking ware that lived up to her standards, but most of her stuff was made at least 20 years ago. We still have steel drinking glasses from when she got married, though those were made in India.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I'm not saying quality or labor conditions don't correlate in any way to country of origin. (I.e. I'm not accusing you of xenophobia.) What I'm pointing out is that a preference in particular for goods made in places like Italy or France (not so the US) often stems from a mix of rational quality concerns and a romanticization of what it means to have goods made by 'real' French or Italian craftsmen, whose techniques and ethnicity are so wrapped up in the public imagination as to make it disappointing if it turns out that one or the other is not as it seems. Perhaps I'm underestimating the progressiveness of the average American, but I'd imagine many would find it disappointing to learn that Italian food is not made by 'real' Italians. At any rate, the Freakonomics post hinted at this being part of the myth-shattering, not just that the workers in question are poorly treated.

Tangentially related: the controversy over Louis Vuitton's false depiction in ads of how the purses are produced - they're made in France, but not, it seems, hand-stitched by fashion models.

Petey said...

"What I'm pointing out is that a preference in particular for goods made in places like Italy or France (not so the US) often stems from a mix of rational quality concerns and a romanticization of what it means to have goods made by 'real' French or Italian craftsmen, whose techniques and ethnicity are so wrapped up in the public imagination as to make it disappointing if it turns out that one or the other is not as it seems."

I have quality concerns in my food shopping, and have noticed that pasta stamped "Made in Italy" is of higher quality than other stamps. How that quality is achieved is of no real concern to me as a consumer.

The whole point of the appellation d’origine contrôlée thing is to correctly label the methods of production, not the ethnicity of those involved in the production.

I'm sure there are a limited number of folks out there who have the precise concerns you outline, but they're idiots, and you ought to stop picking on the mentally challenged.

"Perhaps I'm underestimating the progressiveness of the average American, but I'd imagine many would find it disappointing to learn that Italian food is not made by 'real' Italians."

I'm sure there are folks who are disappointed the first time they discover that their yummy French NYC restaurant meal was cooked by Mexicans instead of French. But the meal was yummy, so they get over it.

People only tend to care about ethnicity when they are in a face-to-face situation.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Agreed that face-to-face makes a difference. But do you really think it's such an unusual phenomenon for the 'Made-in' labels or other announcements of where a product came from to evoke for a consumer a wide range of ideas about the product, from its quality to the conditions in which it was made to, yes, what the people who made it look like? It's this odd space where reason and irrational bias can intersect - sometimes it does matter that X has been made forever and ever, secrets passed down through generations, while other times (as with your NY restaurant example) it does not. But if it didn't matter to people who'd made their food, food packaging would be a bit different - you wouldn't get blond women on beer, for example.

As blog arguments have a way of doing, I now see where this discussion's at a stand-still until someone finds the study that shows what random consumers 'see' when they see various made-in labels. The Freakonomics post struck me as supporting my view, but because it contained no outright 'people expect Italians to make their Italian food', more is needed. Till then, I think they (well, some) see what I think they see, you think something different, and that's it.

Petey said...

"As blog arguments have a way of doing, I now see where this discussion's at a stand-still until someone finds the study that shows what random consumers 'see' when they see various made-in labels. The Freakonomics post struck me as supporting my view, but because it contained no outright 'people expect Italians to make their Italian food', more is needed."

Ugh. The "random consumer" is an idiot who is easily swayed by nonsensical claims. That's not the measure here.

Brands, country of origin, and AOC's are all quite useful information for the educated consumer.

For example, my corner supermarket has an off brand "Made in Italy" pasta for 1/3 the price of DeCecco's. Being an educated pasta consumer, I immediately understood that the "Made in Italy" label guaranteed a certain level of pasta quality that meant I could save some pennies without a real loss in quality over DeCecco's.

On the other hand, if I see a container of olive oil labelled "Made in Italy", I don't think the label has any use for me, since I know the claimed provenance of olive oil is massively fraudulent.

Brands, country of origin, and AOC's are all quite useful information if you can parse what information they convey. As to the "random consumer" who buys a beer simply because it depicts German prostitutes on the label, well caveat emptor.